The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

April 14, 2014

Joan Banks, guest columnist: Right-to-work isn’t what’s right for Missouri

Right-to-work legislation is up in the air right now in the Missouri Legislature.  Last week, the bill failed to get enough votes to advance to the Senate, but supporters are working to get those votes and move it forward.

It sounds so good. Who doesn’t want the “right to work”? In fact, who doesn’t have the “right to work” now? What does the slogan mean?

“Right-to-work” is a deliberately misleading phrase intended to appeal to two basic American values: rights and work.

Here’s what it’s actually about: The law would make it optional for workers to pay dues to a union in a company in which the workers are protected by a union contract while allowing those who don’t belong to the union to reap the benefits of the contract.

A basic conservative value is that people shouldn’t get a free ride. But in a right-to-work environment, some workers, by not paying dues, would be getting benefits from union activities without paying their fair share. In other words, some workers would be getting a free ride to better working conditions and wages. So what would be the effect of making joining optional? Very simply, it would further erode and ultimately destroy unions.

Unions have given us some of the best working conditions in the world. Do you get paid vacation days, sick leave and holidays? Two breaks a day? Do you have a 40-hour work week? Are there workplace safety requirements? Wrongful termination protections? The list goes on. All of these important benefits were brought about by unions.

Missouri Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder’s op-ed column in the Globe (April 6) cited statistics supporting right-to-work. I don’t believe his staff did enough homework.

When researchers rigorously separated the impact on states with right-to-work laws from other variables like tax incentives, the general business climate in a state and other factors, the evidence shows that right-to-work was associated with a decrease in per-capita personal income and wages and had no effect on economic growth.

These were the findings reported in an Economic Policy Institute briefing paper. A search on the Web can uncover many such supporting studies.

Workers who think they can depend upon the goodwill of corporations for good working conditions and good wages are deluded. (There are some socially conscious corporations.) CEOs may talk about “being part of the team” with their rank-and-file employees, but first and foremost, their goal is about maximizing stock performance and profits. Their “team” is made up of them and their stockholders, not the declining middle class.

Unions, pushing for living wages and better conditions for workers, fostered the growth of the middle class. Looking at the history of union membership and the health of our economy suggests that the current decline in union membership correlates with our soaring income inequality.

Our economy has the highest corporate profit margins in history, the lowest wages as a percent of the economy and one of the highest unemployment rates. This has contributed to the huge gap between the wealthiest 1 percent and the very large group of low-income people.

The main backers of right-to-work policies are big business and Republican lawmakers, who get generous donations from corporations. They have joined together with a group called the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has drafted “model” right-to-work legislation that Missouri’s proposed law mimics very closely.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is also a supporter and has long lobbied for right-to-work and against the increase of the minimum wage and fair labor practices. These people do not have the backs of workers or the middle class. They are the one percent.

Stand up for the middle class. Urge your legislator to vote no on right-to-work.

Joan Banks lives in Joplin.

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